Stories from the Stage


Growing Up Black: A Stories from the Stage Special

What does it mean to grow up Black in America, a country too often divided by race? Bullied by a group of kids, Ben finds out he is not alone, and Angie learns about how far we have come, and how far we have to go in a chance encounter with a police officer. These Webby-winning true stories were recorded at home during the height of the pandemic.

AIRED: June 07, 2021 | 0:26:46

BEN CUNNINGHAM: These images fed the white kids

in my neighborhood ammunition

to terrorize me, even in a game of tag.

ANGIE CHATMAN: I struggled and I strained.

And then I looked for help, but I wasn't gonna cry.

I was not gonna give him the satisfaction.

My dad was silent, holding back tears of rage,

because going to the police

meant nothing would be accomplished.

At age six,

the only person that I knew that smoked cigarettes

was my mother.

I never knew that junior high kids smoked cigarettes,

but there are a bunch of them standing in front of my porch,

and Mr. O'Leary's son has this funny-looking cigarette,

and he's angry, because every time he tries to light it,

the wind blows out the flame,

and he really, really wants to tell me something.

So I lean my head in closer to get a better look,

and he lights it.

(imitates hissing)

"Go back to where you came from, you effing monkey!"

(imitates small explosion)

The firecracker hit me underneath the eye

and exploded just before it landed on the ground.

It's almost the Fourth of July,

and there are red, white, and blue flags

going up and down the main street.

Stars and stripes everywhere.

Kids lighting fireworks night and day.

I'm the only Black kid living in this neighborhood,

and the youths in this town are being very patriotic.

"Go back to Africa!"

They called me the n-word and walked away smiling.

At age six, the n-word is a new word in my vocabulary.

That night, my dad immediately took me

to Mr. O'Leary's house, and they had some words.

"Honest Injun, I swear to God,

"my kid didn't throw a firecracker at your kid.

I know my kid the way that you know your... boy."

My dad was silent, holding back tears of rage,

because Mr. O'Leary was a public official,

so going to the police meant nothing would be accomplished.

In public, Mr. O'Leary was a stand-up kind of guy.

In private, you would discover that Mr. O'Leary's small mind

had this huge encyclopedia of racial slurs

for anyone that didn't look like him

or go to the same church.

But he'd get them confused.

So he classified us as "spear-chuckers."

I think the word "spear-chucker"

provided him with a visual aid

so he didn't get his racial slurs confused.

A few days later,

everyone was playing in the park,

the big kids were playing with the little kids,

and all was forgotten.

They scooped me up and put me in this shopping cart.

We just laughed like it was an amusement park ride.

Then, bam!

They flipped the shopping cart over,

trapped me underneath,

and Patrick, the heaviest kid, sat on top.

I cried hysterically

with my face pressed against the bars,

and Mr. O'Leary's son looked me in the eyes, and it was clear:

all was not forgotten.

(imitates laughing): "Who did we catch? Yeah!

"We caught...

Kunta Kinte!" FromRoots.

"A monkey in a cage."

(imitates spitting)

He spit in my face, and the others spit at me.

The little kids danced around the shopping cart,

laughing, pointing, making monkey sounds,

and Patrick sat on top.

Now, many of these kids

have family that are in law enforcement.

Most of these kids will grow up

dreaming of becoming a police officer,

and some will.

It's been over ten minutes now, and I can't breathe.

I'm having an asthma attack.

So they let me go.

Not because they're concerned, but because...

(imitates laughing): "It's freaking hilarious!

"Look at him, look at him making that sound!

Look at him go..." (imitates wheezing)

(imitates laughing)

"Go back to where you came from."

So I spent a lot of time at home, watching TV,

seeing images of where I came from

and who I was supposed to be.

Outdated images

that glorified a racist past.

Brought to you by Walt Disney,

Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and the Three Stooges.

White people in blackface,

Black people turning sheet-white

when they thought they "sees a ghost."

Little African boy, black as coal,

trying to make rabbit stew.

Darkest Africa with Al Jolson-like creatures

dancing across the screen with jazz hands,

saying, "Mammy!"

And I will never forget The Jungle Book,

with an ape singing that song:

"I Want to Be Just Like You."

These images fed the white kids in my neighborhood

ammunition to terrorize me, even in a game of tag.

"Eenie meenie miney mo."

It's just us little kids on my porch.

(imitates laughing): "Catch a (bleep) by the toe!

"Hey, Blackie, we know how to find you in the dark.

"All you gotta do is smile.

Just like in the cartoons."

I've been on this planet for six years,

and that joke wasn't funny the first time,

and it's not funny now.

Suddenly, the game stops,

because the big kids are coming down the street,

and everyone is scared,

because this time, the big kids are Black,

walking down the street in an all-white neighborhood.

They're not walking, they are strutting.

They have these huge Afros,

silk shirts with collars going out to here,

and bell-bottom pants.

One of them has his boom box up on his shoulder,

sunglasses, and he's smoking this cigarette.

He shuts off the radio and he looks at me.

"Say, my man, these white kids messing with you?

"Black man, I am talking to you.

I said, 'Are these white boys messing with you?'"

I don't know what to say.

"White boy, come here.

Fat boy. Yeah, you, come here."

Eddie has never said or done anything racist.

"Are you messing with my man?

I said, 'Are you messing with my man?'"

All Eddie can say is, (stammering): "No, sir."

(stammering): "No, sir."

"You better not be messing with my man.

You dig?"

He flicked his cigarette at his chest

and Eddie looked like he was going to wet his pants

and cry at the same time.

"If any of you whiteys mess with my man, we will be back.

"You dig?

"Little man.

Black power."

I just held up my tiny fist.

They turned that radio back on

and they just strutted down the street

without a care in the world.

They don't care that there was a police officer

who lived across the street.

They went right past the parents' houses

that called me the n-word

and down the hill past that nasty schoolteacher.

And they just disappeared.

The only thing that you could hear was the music playing,

and I never saw them again.

And we went back to... the game.

But this time, things were different.

"Eenie... meenie...

Miney... mo."

(stammering): "Catch a...

"Catch a tiger by the toe.

"If he hollers, let him go.

Out goes Y-O-U."

Ben's courage in sharing this story gives us insight

into his difficult experiences, and his powerful storytelling

helps us understand and feel compassion.

We are grateful for this window on his young life.

So Amanda and I are wondering, does this story speak to

your own childhood of growing up Black?

And, if not, do you still feel like you can identify with Ben

even if his experiences may have been different from your own?

Has knowing his story changed you in some way?

If you've been moved by Ben's experiences as a child,

please help to sustain important stories like his

as we go through this year of reckoning,

of celebrating our differences, and of national healing.

That means making a financial contribution

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Your support today

will share more stories like Ben's with everyone

in our community.

Because one by one,

each story can change the world and make a difference,

and it starts with you.

If you're a fan or just discovering

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it's a great time to support storytelling.

That's whatStories From the Stage is all about,

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of experiences

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When you show your support, we have some wonderful ways

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Make a donation of $72

or just six dollars a month as a sustainer,

we'll show our appreciation with this soft-cover journal

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I can say you'll treasure it,

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If you can step up your donation to eight dollars a month--

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This is where you come to be entertained

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tales of love and loss,

amazing adventures, triumphs, and surprises.

We laugh and cry together,

and we connect with people who may seem very different from us.

And sometimes, as in the case of "Growing Up Black,"

we might be shocked or outraged.

Yet we're given hope that things can get better.

Rather than dividing us,

stories like Ben's bring us all closer together,

and we could all use a little bit more of that these days.

Ben's courage in sharing one of the most difficult

and painful memories of his childhood

could not have been easy.

And Amanda and I can relate to that,

because we've also both told stories

here onStories From the Stage.

I floated through another level four rapid,

because there was no other option.

There was nothing else that I could do.

It would have been

breathtaking had I been able to breathe.

It would have been beautiful

if I wasn't so terrified.

I can tell you, it's, it's hard, it's really hard

to pour your heart out

in front of complete strangers

and hoping they will relate

and connect with your experience,

hopefully without too much judgment.

You know, when I told a story right here

in this studio in front of a live audience, I didn't know

I would get through it necessarily.

I mean, while it was hard, it was a challenge,

it was also really rewarding to finally tell a story

publicly and get some closure on that period in my life.

Diva healed my heart when I thought it was

supposed to stay broken.

And she turned my fear of four-legged monsters

into an unconditional

and everlasting love that I will carry with me

for the rest of my life.

These are stories that must be told.

The more difficult, the more uplifting,

the more hilarious,

the better, the more healing,

especially during these tough times.

Thanks to the financial support from good people like you,

we've been able to present more important stories this year.

Let's keep Stories From the Stage going.

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The fine art of storytelling is as old as humanity itself.

Stories like these can actually break down barriers

to reveal things that we have in common.

Now coming up, we're going to have a story from Angie Chatman

that you do not want to miss.

It's a story about her childhood

that clearly had a profound impact on her life.

And like Ben's story, Angie's is also very personal,

and it will certainly move you just as much as it has moved us.

CHATMAN: Second grade was so boring.

The nuns wore these drab habits,

and their favorite word was, "Shh."

We had to wear uniforms, too.

The girls had navy and gray plaid skirts,

white blouses, a navy cardigan for when it was cold,

navy or white knee-high socks,

and then I wore my brown school shoes.

Everything about second grade was boring,

except for visitor day.

We had once a marine biologist from the Shedd Aquarium.

Another time, an archaeologist

from the Field Museum of Natural History

came to talk about what she did for a living.

But the best part about visitor day is,

we got to wear our own clothes, no uniforms.

And on this particular visitor day,

I'm wearing my favorite light brown knit dress,

and it has pink stripes across the chest.

And then I wore white stockings and my special-occasion

black patent leather shoes with buckle.

And in the afternoon, when our visitor was scheduled to arrive,

a policeman shows up at our classroom door,

and Mrs. Scott, our teacher, invites him in

and introduces him as Officer Stanislavski,

our visitor for the day.

We were to call him Officer Friendly.

Officer Friendly began his talk by explaining that

his job with the Chicago Police Department

was to protect and serve all Americans.

And Lyle in the third row snorted.

And we would have done the same,

because we had seen, two years ago,

when Dr. Martin Luther King

came and marched in Marquette Park,

on the Southwest Side of the city,

the policemen did not protect him.

They protected the white people,

and in fact, those white people stoned Dr. King.

One actually hit his mark on his forehead

and he bled and fell in the street.

The pictures were in the newspaper,

theChicago Defender and theChicago Tribune.

So, for him to say that

he protected all Americans was a fib.

But we were well-behaved students,

and we continued to listen as Officer Friendly

passed around his tools-- his shiny star,

his baton, that was really quite heavy.

And then he asked for a volunteer from the class,

and my hand shot up.

After all, I looked great and I was a teacher's pet.

I did notice that no one else raised their hand.

I got up to the front of the classroom,

and I turned around and I faced my classmates,

and Officer Friendly took out his handcuffs.

And he told me to raise my arms in front of my face,

and he put them on, and they were huge.

In fact,

after he told me to put my hands down,

the handcuffs fell on the floor with a big clink,

and everybody laughed--


Officer Friendly continued by saying

that for people with really small wrists,

he had a different set of handcuffs,

and he told me to put my arms behind my back.

And even though I was nervous, I complied.

He was an adult, a policeman.

I did what I was told.

And Officer Friendly put those handcuffs on my wrists.

I heard the click as he locked them,

and the metal was cold against my skin.

And I tensed up and tried to get out of the handcuffs.

I struggled and I strained.

And then I looked for help,

and Officer Friendly noticed, and he said,

"You know, if you ask me nicely, I'll let you go."

And I looked at my classmates, and Kevin,

who had never talked to me on the playground

and definitely didn't play with me,

he shook his head no.

And that was like confirmation of what I knew inside.

Officer Friendly was a bully,

and he wasn't going to let me out until I cried uncle.

But I wasn't gonna cry.

I was not going to give him the satisfaction.

Unfortunately, my body didn't comply,

and I felt the warm urine

out of my underwear and down my legs

and into my beautiful black patent leather shoes.

And it was at that moment that Mrs. Scott appeared,

and she stood up and she told Officer Friendly,

"Let her go."

Officer Friendly hesitated,

and I thought he was gonna say no.

But Mrs. Scott said, "Right now, release her."

And he took the keys and he let me go.

And I rubbed my wrists,

because they were sore from where I was struggling.

And I grabbed the paper bag that Mrs. Scott offered me,

knowing that inside was

a clean pair of underwear and some socks.

And I went into the bathroom, changed my clothes, and cried.

When I got back to the classroom,

Officer Friendly had gone,

but he had left me a blue whistle

as a token of appreciation

for helping him show off his supplies.

On the walk home, I took that whistle

and I threw it in the trash in the alley,

and when I got home,

I tried to scrub the urine out of my shoes.

My mother came home and she saw what I had done,

and she asked what had happened.

And I told her, and she said,

"Oh, Angie, I'm so sorry that happened to you."

And while I appreciated the sentiment,

I was disappointed.

You see, my mother had told me

she was Wonder Woman without the bracelets,

and I believed her.

So I thought when this bully did this to me,

she would go and do something,

and she said she couldn't.

He was a policeman,

and I felt like I did when I found out

that there was no Santa Claus.

My mother continued to explain

that as time would go by, change would come.

Things would be different when I got older.

You see, I'm of the generation of Emmett Till,

and those four little girls in Sunday school,

and Huey Newton and Rodney King.

And my mother was right, she didn't lie to me.

Change has come.

But then I think about Ahmaud Arbery,

and Sandra Bland, and George Floyd,

and the problem is not that change hasn't come.

The problem is that not enough change has come.

Not nearly enough change.

(sighs): What a heartbreaking story from Angie Chatman.

To be terrorized by "Officer Friendly"

in front of her second-grade classmates,

and to have her teacher intervene

only after she has an accident.

The sadness of Angie's story has lingered with me

since the very first time that I heard it.

Hearing the story about Angie makes us sad and maybe angry.

Yet Angie's unrelenting spirit gives us hope.

By sharing stories like these and learning what it feels like

to be in the situation, we can focus on similarities

instead of our differences.

Sharing these stories can make us more compassionate

and understanding, can help us discover ways

to treat and see and hear each other

so that we can respect everyone.

To share more stories like Angie's,

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We like to think ofStories From the Stage

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Thank you so much to everyone who has already given,

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That's how we show our appreciation.

Sign up as a sustainer, that's just six dollars a month,

and we'll say thanks with this soft-cover journal

to record your own memories,

or to help with your own storytelling skills.

It's a wonderful way to keep track of important moments

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How fun it'll be to look back at your writing

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The journal inscription says "everyone has a story."

I love that, because it's true.

Now if you can step up your donation

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that's $96 all at once, we'll say thanks

with this handsome soft-cover journal

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Just give us a call or visit our website and thanks.

If you're a regular viewer ofStories From the Stage,

you know that this series casts light on everyday realities

of people from across all divides--

stories with great purpose from diverse points of view.

We like to say that these

are the stories behind the headlines,

illustrating the big issues of today that point to

the stark differences in our community,

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In an important way,

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These stories recognize our differences and our likenesses

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The executive producers ofStories From the Stage

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events, and communities that might be new to you:

tales of love,

family, conflict, continuity, change, and triumph.

Stories that inspire you and make you think.

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And with your support today, we'll continue to have a place

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Stories like Angie's are so important as our nation awakens

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